STORY BY MONTANA SPORTS INFORMATION
MISSOULA – She arrived in this world the daughter of a college football coach, but Betsy Westermann wasn’t born into the profession. Before her very first childhood memories could be established, her dad was leaving that life behind.
“One day my older brother drew a picture of our family on a piece of paper, including our dog, and he put my dad on the back,” says Westermann, who was born in Silver Spring, Md., not far from Washington D.C., where her dad coached at Gallaudet University and served as Director of Athletics.
“My mom told him, If you want a family, this is how the kids are feeling. My dad had been to Montana once, so they packed us up and moved to Great Falls, even though neither my mom nor dad had jobs.”
It was a decision Robert Westermann, who had a record at Gallaudet of 27-13, made for his family despite becoming a Bison legend in four short years at the school, which at the time was the nation’s only university for the deaf and hearing impaired.
His second team, in 1986, went 7-4 and gave the school its first winning record since 1930. His final team, in 1988, won the Atlantic Collegiate Football Conference. He left college coaching with the best winning percentage in school history and was inducted into Gallaudet’s Hall of Fame Class of 2010.
Coaching may have been out three decades ago, but sports never went out of vogue for the family. Three of the four Westermann children would go on to play collegiately, and child No. 3 would eventually coach college softball, following in her dad’s footsteps and proving it remained in the blood.
“I love the game. I think it can teach you a lot of life lessons,” said Betsy Westermann, who joined the Montana softball coaching staff this week, just in time for the team’s first practice of the season on Tuesday.
“When I started coaching, it kind of clicked, the things our coach was trying to do with us and how that impacted my life and how much better of a person I was because of it. I coach because I might have a similar impact on somebody. I want to pay it forward to the girls I’m coaching.”
Westermann, who spent the previous four years coaching at Eastern Oregon, completes first-year coach Melanie Meuchel’s staff and puts an end to the months-long disruption to the program that began in early August when former coach Jamie Pinkerton was hired away by Iowa State.
Meuchel, who led the program through its fall exhibition season as interim coach, was named Pinkerton’s replacement in mid-October. The process to find her own replacement as assistant coach wrapped up just days before the start of the 2018 season.
“I’m excited that we’re at full staff and can really give the student-athletes the individual time that they need and deserve,” said Meuchel, who also has on staff Brittany Gomez, in her second year as the program’s graduate assistant coach, and volunteer coach Dennis Meuchel.
“Because of the timing of Betsy’s hire, it will take some time to develop the relationships between coach and student-athlete, but everyone is open and eager to get the process started.”
Westermann’s teams went 92-92 in her four years at Eastern Oregon and were 15 games over .500 the last two seasons.
Her third team, in 2016, won the Cascade Collegiate Conference tournament championship, a program first, and advanced to the NAIA national tournament. In what would be her final season at Eastern Oregon, the Mountaineers went 28-19 last spring.
“She did quite well with her team at Eastern Oregon and had some success,” said Meuchel. “I spoke with coaches throughout the area and got some great feedback from the times they had worked with her or had played her teams.”
With her program at Eastern Oregon on an upward trajectory, like a fast-rising stock, what job opportunity was it going to take for Westermann to consider leaving La Grande? “This one,” she says.
“My dad always asked his kids, What’s your dream job? Where do you want to go, what do you want to be? My answer was Missoula and working with the Griz softball team.”
It was a bit of prescience on Westermann’s part, because that was her answer long before Montana had a softball program.
The Westermanns lived in Great Falls for eight years, then moved to Duvall, Wash., outside of Seattle, and established a pipeline of college athletes.
“Sports were always a fuel for my family. All of us played sports, and all of us did well in our sports. It was something that was always around,” Westermann says.
It was football at Pacific Lutheran and Luther College in Iowa for the boys. Westermann’s older sister fulfilled a childhood pledge by going to Montana and becoming a teacher. Westermann didn’t know what she would do, but it wouldn’t be going to a small school in North Dakota.
“My mom went to Jamestown College, and she brought all of us kids on our own little visit to show off her alma mater,” Westermann says. “It was the last place in the world I thought I would go.”
But she went through tryouts for volleyball, basketball and softball anyway. She was offered walk-on spots on Jamestown’s volleyball and basketball teams, and a scholarship to play softball.
She played two years of volleyball, four years of softball, and would be an all-conference infielder for the Jimmies and graduate with a degree in physical education in 2009.
Her plan had been to return to Duvall, student teach, then coach at the high school level. Her assumed direction in life was altered when the coach at Northern State in South Dakota, Terri Holmes, offered Westermann a graduate assistant position.
“That changed my plans. From then on, I knew this is what I wanted to do,” says Westermann.
She coached for one year under Holmes, another under Kristi Villar, who is now in her first year as an assistant coach at South Dakota State under Krista Wood, who phone-interviewed to be Montana’s first head coach back in 2013 when she was at Wayne State in Nebraska. Small world, softball coaching.
That led to positions at Black Hills State, Dakota State and finally Eastern Oregon, where she had just started when Montana was first getting its softball program going. Her dream had come true. At least part of it. The program was finally in place. But she wasn’t.
“When they started the program, I thought it was awesome, but I didn’t apply for any of the positions. I knew it was out of my league. I wasn’t there yet,” says Westermann.
She was last fall, when Meuchel was hired, then had to go about the process of filling her assistant coach position.
“I wasn’t looking for jobs, but one of my friends called and told me it was open. I applied and got really nervous,” she says, and those feelings carried over to her phone interview that came shortly after Christmas.
“I didn’t think I did well in my phone interview. I was anxious that I wasn’t going to get a call to do an on-campus interview. When she called, it was like, I can do this. Here we go.”
She was on campus earlier this month, which closed the deal for both sides.
“Everything (Melanie) said lined up with how I’ve been running my program at Eastern Oregon,” Westermann says. “I bought in right away with how she wants to run it and where she sees it going, which was a relief.
“Here is this job, and it’s where I want to be and what I want to be doing, but is it going to be the right fit? I’m excited to be part of a staff that is extremely knowledgeable. I haven’t been part of an actual staff before. I’m excited to learn more and grow as a coach and help continue to build this program.”
As she did as Pinkerton’s assistant, Meuchel will continue to work with the program’s pitchers and catchers in her position as head coach.
Westermann will oversee the program’s hitters and infield, Gomez the team’s outfield and slap hitters. The elder Meuchel, the most experienced member of the staff, will work with each area as needed.
And that finalizes the changes that became necessary now more than five months ago. It was a long process to reestablish the staff, from hiring the new head coach to Meuchel finding her replacement, but everything is now in place.
November and December isn’t the ideal time to be searching for an assistant coach, but ask Meuchel what she was seeking in her ideal candidate and it almost seems like it was fate.
“We were looking for someone who knew the Pacific Northwest and someone who is passionate about the University of Montana and wants to be here and be part of Griz Nation,” says Meuchel.
When your new assistant coach had that dream years and years before it could ever become reality, you know you’ve found the right person.